In Defense of Art & Artists

Karlísima’s defaced “Presidential Mural.” Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 6, 2015, a highly praised public mural funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities was defaced by a vandal or vandals. Unashamedly, a leading left-wing activist wrote a vile article celebrating the willful destruction of the artwork because it depicts eleven US presidents from Eisenhower to Obama. Then, one of America’s leading “radical” websites published the filthy screed.

What the hell is going on here? Please allow this working artist to fill in the details.

Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

In 2008 the owners of Mama Ayesha’s, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Washington D.C., commissioned award winning Latina artist Karla Cecilia Rodas Cortez, popularly known as Karlísima, to paint a large mural on the outside wall of the restaurant.

The mural work was meant to honor the founder of the eatery, Ayesha Abraham, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem in the late 1800’s who came to the US as an émigré in the late 1940s. Abraham opened her restaurant, originally named Calvert Café, and it was a success in the community and frequented by the politicos that worked in Washington. When Ayesha died in 1993, her family renamed the business Mama Ayesha’s in her honor.

Karlísima’s mural depicts Ayesha Abraham in traditional Palestinian dress, flanked on her right by presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, and Jimmy Carter, while on her left Abraham was flanked by Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. In the background one can see blossoming Cherry trees and the White House. The mural is framed on both sides by a border set in mosaic tile that depicts the US flag. No doubt the restaurant owners wanted to praise Ayesha, but they also wanted to laud their establishment as a favored bistro with government workers, ambassadors, and political dignitaries.

Karlísima’s defaced “Presidential Mural.” Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

It took three years on a scaffold for Karlísima to paint her Presidential Mural. The cost of producing the artwork was $25,000, and the funding was provided by the Abraham family, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities. The artist hired some assistants, but most of the work she did by herself. $25,000 is a pittance for three years of labor, is it not? Allow this proletarian artist to explain the concept for you. I support the fifteen dollar an hour movement, so I know that a 40-hour-a-week job that pays the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 nets a worker a yearly salary of around $13,926, or $41,778 for a three year period. This is wholly inadequate as a living wage, but it also means that in three years of hard work Karlísima earned far less than a worker laboring in a fast food business.

On the night of August 6, a vandal, or possibly a group of hooligans, shot up Karlísima’s mural using a paint ball gun or guns loaded with bright red paint. It took time to methodically place over 50 shots in the groin area of the presidents. The central figure of Ayesha Abraham was not destroyed. One of the hoodlums supposedly signed the work with a scrawl reading, “The War Thugs.” Channel 4 NBC Washington reported that the manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, responded to the destruction by saying: “It’s sad. My family has worked hard for this restaurant – blood, sweat and tears over the past 55 years.” The television station also spoke to the artist, who simply said: “I’m just so devastated.”

Karlísima’s defaced “Presidential Mural.” Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

On August 7, 2015, the Common Dreams website published an article by Sam Husseini with the awkwardly sophomoric title of: On Shooting the ‘War Thug’ Presidents in the (Paint) Balls. A writer and left-wing political activist, Mr. Husseini is the communications director of the progressive Institute for Public Accuracy. His articles on pop culture, media, and political matters have been widely published, from the Nation to the Washington Post, but his Paint Balls essay is utterly reprehensible. From the opening paragraph to the last moral high-horse sentence, Husseini’s anti-art diatribe made my blood boil; this passionate article is the result.

I will be direct, Sam Husseini is a philistine, a classic example of an individual who knows absolutely nothing about art. The fact that he writes about pop culture and media, and his rubbish is published, points not only to the intellectual squalor of our times, but to the bankruptcy of America’s “left.”

In the malicious opening of his article, Husseini informs the reader that Karlísima’s mural had been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn” by its defacement! He completely dismisses the artist, barely mentioning her, saying only that “the mural was originally labored over by Karlisima Rodas.”

Karlísima’s defaced “Presidential Mural.” Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

Of Mayan ancestry, Karlísima was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and was considered a prodigy for her artistic abilities. As a child Karlísima was mentored by none other than José Mejía Vides, a printmaker, sculptor, and painter now considered an luminary in Salvadoran art. One does not need to dwell on the conditions suffered by El Salvador in the 1980s. Karlísima left her country in 1984 and emigrated to the US where she settled in Washington D.C. In 1992 she graduated from Washington University with a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts, and went on to work at the National Gallery of Art and the National Museum of African American Art as a silk screen specialist.

Husseini goes on to call the paint ball vandalism “a sort of art work that is literally paint as paint,” and that for the destroyed mural “there’s a case to be made that this more completes the piece than defaces it.” Husseini adds the wisecrack that “some people, including Karlisima, now seem upset by the addition of the paintballs, but murals are not typically done to glorify the high and mighty.”

In what would not be his final spasm of mental incapacity, Husseini jeered that “the original mural is not destroyed, it’s not painted over, but used to make a perhaps unexpected point.” Ah, there it is, the postmodern gobbledegook. You see, an anonymous street artist has merely “appropriated” and “repurposed” Karlísima’s mural! It is with the most bitter sarcasm that I must point out that our paint ball vandal could enjoy a lucrative career in today’s trendy art world, if he or she would only step out of the shadows.

Instead of criticizing Karlísima’s artwork, perhaps Mr. Husseini should offer some critical analysis of America’s progressive movement. The US antiwar movement totally collapsed with the ascendancy of Mr. Hope and Change, the “antiwar” president; the left simply folded itself into the Obama campaign and the democratic party, willingly and mostly uncritically. It has not since recovered, and I have serious doubts that it will. The left’s ineptitude and total incompetence has prevented it from impacting the American political scene, and now out of sheer frustration, lefties are attacking an artist for painting the portraits of eleven US presidents.

What really stuck in Husseini’s craw was that Karlísima dared to paint 11 US presidents without giving them devil horns and fangs. In Husseini’s words: “From using nuclear weapons to bombing Vietnam and invading Iraq to deploying killer drones in country after country, the thuggish-ness of these presidents is hard to compete with.” He went on to say that “an augmented mural could include mushroom clouds in the background, and perhaps jet fighters, bombers and killer drones flying overhead.” Yes, but… we are not talking about the augmentation of an artwork, we are talking about artless pillage. Husseini completely disregards Karlísima’s right to freedom of expression because he deems her artwork “politically incorrect.”

“Nagasaki Nightmare” – Gee Vaucher. Pencil drawing, 1980.

I am in no way opposed to the creation of acerbic works of art that malign the war making ruling class, I have created such images myself. Here I must mention the brilliance of English artist Gee Vaucher. In 1977 she joined the anarchist punk rock band Crass, producing extraordinary hand drawn images that everyone thought were photomontages. In 1980 Vaucher drew the cover art for the band’s Nagasaki Nightmare single, an antiwar musical masterwork. The artwork depicted the leaders of nuclear armed powers and their allies standing on the pulverized remains of Nagasaki, the charred body of a child at their feet. Vaucher’s drawing and the band’s lyrics continue to haunt me: “They’ve done it once, and they’ll do it again, they’ll shower us all in their deadly rain.”

If Husseini actually knew anything, he might have told his readers about Vaucher’s works, instead he went for the denigrating cheap shot by belittling an artist and praising a vandal. Crass did not destroy anyone else’s artwork in order to make their point.

Husseini attempts to justify the destruction of an artwork that he does not politically approve of, and he makes light of it. His tone is more appropriate for TMZ or Buzzfeed. He condones the ruining of an artist’s depiction of U.S. presidents, because “all these presidents have used violence.” I find the crudeness and philistinism of Sam Husseini to be frightening. By giving a green light to the defacement of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, my fear is that he incites some screwball to visit the US National Portrait Gallery and begin defacing the museum’s historic Portraits of the Presidents collection; justifying the vandalism of art is a slippery slope.

Furthermore, Husseini assumes the “transformation” of the mural was carried out as a left critique of power. How does he know the defacement was not carried out by your garden-variety lunatic, or simply as an act of teenage vandalism? The signature “The War Thugs” could have been left by anyone and should not be considered evidence for political motivation.

More to the point, it is so much easier to destroy a work that took an artist three years to create, than it is to produce your own artistic statement. Husseini did not call for artists to step forward to create skillful and persuasive works of art to open minds and touch the human soul, no, he made excuses for an act of sheer brutish intimidation, and no American should put up with it.

Karlísima’s defaced “Presidential Mural.” Video screen capture from Channel 4 NBC Washington.

What would Husseini have written about the City of Los Angeles partially white washing the Siqueiros América Tropical mural on Olvera Street in 1932? Would he have written that it had simply been “transformed” or “made more whole, reborn?” I have to wonder how Husseini would respond to a pro-Palestinian public mural being defaced on US streets with red paint ball splats. Would he say that “the paintball artist perhaps admirably exercised restraint from engaging in figurative head shots,” like he did when referring to the ruined Karlísima mural?

It seems so obvious that I hesitate to bring it up, but history has shown us many examples where art and artists were destroyed for political purposes. Starting in 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committed destroyed the lives and careers of hundreds of directors, screenwriters actors, and other professionals in the Hollywood motion picture industry, because they were accused of being communists. In the late 1930’s the Nazis began to ban artists that they perceived to be “un-German” and “degenerate,” in particular banning Jewish and communist artists. Husseini’s claptrap regarding Karlísima’s mural reminds me of the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibitions (German: Entartete Kunst), where the fascists exhibited modern art for ridicule and derision before destroying the canvases, sculptures, and prints, or selling them overseas for profit.

I am a dedicated realist painter and printmaker with a lifelong commitment to creating socially conscious works of art. If Sam Husseini, his minions and supporters, would care to go through my online portfolio of artworks and writings published on my Art For A Change website, they will find nothing that even remotely smacks of reactionary politics. That being said, I strongly denounce Husseini’s vile contention that Karlísima’s mural was “transformed” and “made more whole, reborn,” by a wretched act of vandalism.

In 1758 the French philosopher Claude-Adrien Helvétius published a controversial book titled On the Mind. The work was banned by the Parliament and the Sorbonne while Helvétius came under relentless attack. The Enlightenment philosopher and writer Voltaire was unimpressed by the book, but when he heard it had been publicly torched, he resolved to support Helvétius.

In 1919 the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall published a book that summarized Voltaire’s position regarding Helvétius in the following words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hall’s phrase is what Husseini should have proclaimed when announcing his displeasure with Karlísima’s mural. Hall’s words should be ringing in our ears. The act of vandalism approved of by Husseini clarifies her words and brings them new life and meaning.

Truth be told, I don’t really care for Karlísima’s Presidential Mural, as I do not believe an artist’s role is to give uncritical support to those at the top. Let us just say it is the Francisco Goya in me. But when goons attempt to physically obliterate her work, and slippery eels publish rationales and apologia for those attacks… I will stand with Karlísima as a fellow artist.  I would hope that I would have the same support, were my own works ever defaced.

The manager of Mama Ayesha’s, Amir Abu-El-Hawa, has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money necessary to restore the damaged mural; the goal is to raise $4,000 dollars. At the time of this writing, $3,285 dollars have been raised. Please join me and contribute whatever you can to the restoration of Karlísima’s Presidential Mural.

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UPDATE – 8/12/2015: Craig Brown contacted me on August 11th. As the co-founder of Common Dreams, Mr. Brown directs the editorial content and daily operations of the online publication. He surprised me by writing: “I completely agree with your ‘In Defense of Art & Artists,'” and claimed that since he had not seen nor approved the Paint Balls article by Sam Husseini, its publication was an oversight. To his credit, Brown asked permission to reprint my essay as a rebuttal to Husseini’s piece. In Defense of Art & Artists was republished on Common Dreams on Aug. 12, 2015.

In his e-mail to me, Brown noted that his late wife and fellow Common Dreams founder Lina Newhouser, was also a founder of the Alliance for Cultural Democracy (ACD), and that she would have been infuriated by Husseini’s screed. The ACD was a national arts activism group that organized around issues of cultural democracy from 1982 to 1994.

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